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Friends "raucousness" allowed by California court

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Saturday, April 22, 2006

San Francisco (Reuters): The California Supreme Court ruled today that writers have the right to talk dirty and make lewd comments while creating a television situation comedy without having to worry about being sued. The court said the writers of the hit TV series ''Friends'' did not create a hostile work environment or sexually harass a woman who worked for them by transcribing their raucous work sessions creating programs. The case was closely watched in Hollywood, where several leading writers and civil liberties lawyers said the suit threatened to undermine freedom of speech and the creative process.

A spokesman for Warner Bros. Television, named as a defendant in the suit, hailed the ruling, saying: ''Now we can continue doing what we do best, writing and producing hit television shows with the knowledge that our speech is protected.'' The unanimous ruling by the state's High Court upheld a Lower-Court decision throwing out the sexual harassment claim brought by former ''Friends' transciber Amaani Lyle against the writers and producers of the NBC sitcom. She said she was fired after complaining about being subjected to racial and sexual slurs. The show's writers said Lyle lost her job because she was a slow typist who often missed the jokes she was supposed to transcribe. The Supreme Court said because ''Friends'' was an ''adult-oriented comedy show featuring sexual themes,'' Lyle should have expected coarse language from writers producing jokes and scripts.

The decision, written by Justice Marvin Baxter, said ''sexual antics and sexual discussions'' by the show's writers were not aimed at Lyle or other female employees, and that women writers also discussed sexual experiences for material for the show. ''There is no dispute 'Friends' was a situation comedy that featured young sexually active adults and sexual humor geared primarily toward adults,'' Baxtor wrote. ''Aired episodes of the show often used sexual and anatomical language, innuendo, wordplay and physical gestures to create humor concerning sex, including oral sex, anal sex, heterosexual sex, gay sex,'' and related topics, he wrote. While the Fair Employment and Housing Act prohibits conduct that creates a hostile workplace, it does not outlaw ''sexually coarse and vulgar language that merely offends,'' Baxter wrote.

Lyle's lawsuit raised questions of how far TV comedy writers could go in pushing the boundaries of taste in private joke-writing sessions, with supporters of writers and producers arguing the suit infringed on their freedom of speech. The court, with one dissenting voice, said it did not need to address free speech issues because the case could be decided by considering whether the Fair Employment Act was violated. ''Friends,'' NBC's top-rated show for several years, ended its 10-season-run in May 2004.

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